John Ashbery was born when Pola Negri was box office, yet his poems are more in touch with the American demotic—the tongue most of us speak and few of us write—than any near-octogenarian has a right to be. He has published more than a thousand pages in the last fifteen years, almost twice as many as Wallace Stevens wrote in half a century, and Stevens was no slouch. Ashbery’s poems are like widgets manufactured to the most peculiar specifications and in such great numbers the whole world widget market has collapsed. Where Shall I Wander (a title lifted from the nursery rhyme“Goosey, goosey, gander”) begins with a typical piece of Ashberyian folderol:
We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places—
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?
Ashbery’s poems revel in such intimations of disaster (they’re a tease without a strip), a disaster curiously similar to the nameless wars and borders and betrayals of Auden’s early poems. In the middle of these Egypt-like plagues, punctuated by small touches of absurdity and big doses of nonsense, the reader may wake wondering if he hasn’t read this poem before. Almost all Ashbery’s poems, those dead-ends of déjà vu, offer the dream of meaning endlessly deferred—the deception finally becomes the expectation. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” said a banker involved in the hoax of the Cardiff giant, and in Ashbery there’s a sucker born every line. When the contract between writer and reader is so fragile, the poet can pretend to fulfill it with no more than the chaff and loose ends of sentences, fragments that never grow up to be wholes. In general, the more of Ashbery there is, the less there is (the worst poems here are prosy and interminable). Much of the book, despite its local fireworks, is the exhausted repetition of his old vaudeville routines:
Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
watermarks this time of day. Time to get out
and, as they say, about. Becalmed on a sea
of inner stress, sheltered from cold northern breezes,
idly we groove: Must have
been the time before this, when we all moved
in schools, a finny tribe, and this way
and that the caucus raised its din.
And so on and on. Here we have the embrace of American idiom, whether high-stepping or lowbrowed (Ashbery’s range is as broad as Whitman’s), the steep descent of tone, the enjambment almost as flirtatious as Milton’s. Ashbery offers some things few other poets do (including the patented double take and stop-on-a-dime volte-face) while being incapable of offering what most think absolutely necessary. This makes him not just a slapstick artist for our fallen times—no, it means that when you read Ashbery you have to forget much of what you know about reading poetry. You have to take satisfaction where pleasures are rarely given and never let yourself wish for what isn’t there. (There’s so much that isn’t there.) Ashbery undermines many of the axioms on which poetry rests—he’s smiling, not like Carroll’s cat, but like Schrödinger’s, neither dead nor alive but always already both. Some of the most engaging passages here comment archly on parties or clothes. They make you wish that, instead of writing poems like a man with an attention-deficit disorder, Ashbery were capable of writing a novel as long as Remembrance of Things Past. Though sometimes it’s a perverse pleasure to see large issues reduced to candy floss, there’s a devious moral world, largely untapped, beneath his nonsense—Ashbery is a man not afraid to write whatever rattles into his head (if he had an internal censor, one logical as a lawyer, he’d lose all that devil-may-care charm). Alas, it’s no use asking this poet to be something he isn’t—and sometimes no use trying to like the something he is. When you read his poems, you sigh with pleasure to see a thing so odd done with such panache, such savoir-faire, such élan, such … well, whatever the word would be, it would be French, in order to apply to that ultimate boulevardier of American poetry, Mr. Ashbery. Ashbery has inherited the mode of attention that gave us Baudelaire, but also Walter Benjamin’s archives project and Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero. He finds America in its hither-thither diction much as Whitman (who scrawled down examples of American slang in his notebooks) did in its American scenes. An outsider sees things too common for us to notice, or too strange for us to admit, and for his whole career Ashbery has been an American outsider, though a much honored one. He is now rapidly going, even so, from elder statesman to venerable antique (as once he went from Peck’s bad boy to elder statesman)—all you can do with such Victorian whatnots is dust them off once in awhile and wonder what people ever saw in them.
The quality of whimsy is not strained. It falleth from Ashbery like the gentle rain—and it falleth on a lot of young poets now, students in the School of Goofball Poetics, boys who cut their teeth on Ashbery and Charles Simic and James Tate and now show little interest in any poems written before Dada came to town. Dean Young’s sixth book, Elegy on Toy Piano, is fairly representative of the younger generation, full to the gills with geegaws and thingmabobs and dojiggers, but one tradition embraced is a lot of tradition rejected.
shouts the hero rushing into the study room.
Mung magph naagh, replies the heroine
still in her gag. Insert flap A
into slot A. X-rays inconclusive.
Want to hear me count to 1,000 by 17s?
Beep hexagonal, my puppeteer.
I hate your dog.
Huh? Well, now that you mention it, fella, I don’t want to hear your times table after all. Not every Young poem is quite this scatterbrained, but he loves non sequiturs much as a snake loves mice. (Not that non sequiturs seem to like him very much.) Reading Young is like watching a stand-up comic on a cable channel, one unsure of his audience, staring at the crowd like a gazelle surrounded by a pack of hyenas, and bombing like a B-17. The problem with comedy of this trivial sort is that, rather than shock or provoke, it manages merely to irritate (the reader is reduced to muttering Uh-oh or Ho-hum). A poet who wants to get laughs begins to write for the joke, and when he can’t nail that he just lays down a laugh track. Poets find it hard to be serious now, unless they’re writing about their lives (on which they tend to be all too grave, as if working up a pathology report). At best, Young’s poems mock themselves as well as poets of more serious temper. At worst, they’re the poems of someone who took a mail-order course in surrealism:
One walking a lobster on a leash.
One who knew the functions of 14 different forks.
Something there is that does not love
a constructor of roller coasters.
When Lung Zu looked at the wall, he saw no wall.
When Po Chu walked east, she also walked west.
The symphony opens with heroic proclamation
disclaimed by a hush of liquid paper.
Forever late like the White Rabbit, such helter-skelter lines seem in a headlong hurry to be elsewhere. In one poem, Young mentions setting an alarm clock for five a.m., “to write fast without thinking,” and a lot of these poems must have been written that way. He grooves along like a scat singer, not really caring if he’s blithering (not caring is, after all, the point). Sometimes his poems have delightfully loopy premises (one consists of a hundred true/false statements; another juggles the complicated mathematics involved in liking a married couple), but sooner or later they run out of steam—he’s not a poet who knows when he’s overstayed his welcome. Young’s poems want so badly to be loved, after a while you’re willing to buy them a ticket to Lapland, just to be rid of their shining, eager faces. On the rare occasion that this poet does think about something serious, he jokes about it for a couple of lines, then scurries off in embarrassment. Elegy on Toy Piano shows what happens when a poet inherits a difficult, contradictory tradition (the uses of surrealism are almost as various as the uses of lyric) and can make nothing out of it but trash.
Jorie Graham loves big ideas the way small boys like big trucks. Her books start with some notion just the far side of grandiose (“What does it mean,” the dust jacket trumpets, “to be fully present in a human life? How—in the face of the carnage of war … —does one retain one’s ability to be both present and responsive?”) and end up grinding the Himalayas down to gravel. In Overlord, her tenth book, she visits Omaha Beach, attempting to see beyond the placid sands—children playing along the shore, the rusting landing craft become tide pools—the indiscriminate slaughter of June 6, 1944:
others meant for Easy Green or Easy Red
also thrown at Dog—mostly all still
sweepers—all dragged down, freezing, waves huge—meant to land
where gun emplacements were less thick and channels between lines
could be read through the surface of
This odd shorthand—historical flotsam and jetsam swept up along the tide line of verse (she employed no fewer than seven researchers, though she still can’t tell a bomb squadron from a bomb group)—recreates some of the frenzy, the helpless panic, of those first moments of D-Day (the code name for the invasion was Overlord). Yet the bullying italics and the knowing use of “reading,” as if the sands were simply another text, drag us away from the helpless soldiers (the most telling passages in these poems are snippets from their letters and interviews) to the mastering presence, the overlording, of the poet herself. For a long while, Graham’s poetry has suffered this peculiar immodesty. No matter where her poems start, sooner or later their subject becomes the poet’s hyperkinetic awareness of her own senses (reading some of her poems is like tripping on LSD), and this too easily turns into the blank stare and lapel grabbing of the quietly mad—“I’m actually staring up at/ you, you know, right here, right from the pool of this page./ Don’t worry where else I am, I am here.” Graham has reduced the poetry of meditation to navel-gazing; the minute attention to her nattering thoughts, to the violence of her vision (at one point she gets down to photon level), merely reworks, in stilted fashion, the stream of consciousness Dorothy Richardson pursued in the Twenties. If Graham had concentrated on the accident and contingency of war, had honored the men whose deaths she casually invokes, Overlord might have become the sort of serious meditation that produced Geoffrey Hill’s Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). Graham is so busy taking everything back to first principles, hurling Plato and Zeno into the breach, she’s in danger of forgetting that poems embrace dullness only at great risk.
[when your work sells for][millions of dollars][you][can]
indulge yourself. You can paint to prove that painting is dead. You can
paint as a true believer in painting. [Oh I should][I really should][you said
it was there][truly there][I only had to take the photograph]
[and that only one thing exists][no … not death!][this!]
In the wrack and wreckage of her current work, it’s hard to remember the difficult pleasures of Erosion (1983) and The End of Beauty (1987), high-voltage moments in the poetry of the Eighties. Unfortunately, the powers a poet harnesses for a book or two may eventually prove so unruly that what was once an imagination in tension becomes a stampeding coach and six. Graham’s lack of any sense of proportion reduces the argument of Overlord to something like “On the one hand, my kitty has AIDS; on the other, a whole lot of guys died on Omaha Beach.” (If you think the poet can stoop no lower, that her high-mindedness can’t be more unintentionally hilarious, you haven’t read the poem in which she buys a homeless man a meal and practically kills him.) Halfway through the book, the poor soldiers have been forgotten; and Graham, like a mini-U.N., begins deliberating upon the idea of nations:
Time of the flags is long past—how
strange—a Flag! Of what? Are you a
nation, you, you there. Are you in a nation. Is one in you?
Are you at war or at peace or are war and peace
playing their little game over your dead body?
Such hectoring, humorless lines, trite as tar paper, are worse than the propaganda Marianne Moore wrote during World War II. For years, Graham has scoured the bushes for finches, has pried loose every stray barnacle she has come across; there was long hope that these scattered minutiae (one man’s junk being another man’s scientific collection) might one day prove the coral accretion of a grand poem or two. Alas, the method has long since become her meaning: she scrapes and shuffles and observes her grains of sand, but in the end all she has to show for it is the scraping and shuffling. Almost everything Graham writes offers the swagger of emotion, pretentiousness by the barrelful, and a wish for originality that approaches vanity—she’s less a poet than a Little Engine that Could, even when it Can’t. If I close her later books disappointed, it’s never a disappointment in their boldness, but rather in her inability to bring these huge engineering projects to successful conclusion. Will that stop her? Like hell it will!
There’s this skirt, see, named Delilah Redbone, see, and this dick in Shadowtown named Jones, and the sap falls for her. The frail’s maiden name was Trouble, and the dick, his middle name is Danger. If you’ve never gotten your fill of alibis, gunsels, snitches, paybacks, hideouts, and hooch, Kevin Young’s Black Maria pays homage to the great films noirs of the Forties andthe hard-boiled fiction of Chandler and Hammett. The trappings of a new genre often refashion an old one (though in new feathers even a good poet may look ridiculous). Almost two decades ago, Nicholas Christopher’s detective novel in verse, Desperate Characters (1987), showed how difficult the genre can be for the dilettante, but then almost a century and a half ago another amateur proved that brilliant things could be done—what is The Ring and the Book but a detective novel? (Some might claim Paradise Lost is a police procedural.) Young, whose last book was a misdirected and sentimental reworking of the blues, is an ambitious young poet with quirky ideas. Black Maria is meant to be a film, its sections, called “reels,” composed of poems that straggle down the page half-starved for punctuation:
I didn’t have a rat’s chance.
Soon as she walked in in
That skin of hers
violins began. You could half hear
The typewriters jabber
as she jawed on: fee, find, me,
Shadows & smiles, she was.
Strong scent of before-rain
Her pinstripe two-lane
legs, her blackmail menthol.
The occasional phrase reveals what delights await a genre transformed, but the rest is jazzed-up jawing and sidelong remarks that niggle their way toward wisecracks (“pinstripe two-lane/ legs” must refer, clumsily, to the dark seam in old nylons). Young loves wordplay more than any contemporary except Paul Muldoon; he’ll go to great lengths to fetch a pun, and even greater ones for a bad joke. The poems here are addicted to internal rhymes, winsome glances at the reader, and a diction that slides from the most perfumed poeticism to black dialect (the language at times suggests that Jones and Redbone are black, though it’s not entirely clear). Such frenzied invention might be just the thing to invigorate contemporary poetry, which often can’t see past the third-rate traumas of private life (the vampire in Sylvia Plath turned out to be Plath). Think how Auden’s urban renewal projects troubled the Thirties and Forties—“Letter to Lord Byron,” “New Year Letter,” “For the Time Being,” and “The Sea and the Mirror” razed some of the settled assumptions of modernism. Young has seen that noir can capture, as critics have been saying for decades, the anxieties of the age—and what age is more anxious than ours? Young’s vers noir, alas, has none of the suspense of film or novel. Narrated in a slack-jawed style where all characters talk alike, it meanders along without much by way of plot, the incidents democratically clichéd, the denizens proud to be stereotypes, only the language working overtime. Young is devoted to his dumb jokes, and by the time you’ve been sledge-hammered by “my entrenched coat,” a “well-minxed martini,” “here comes the bribe,” “two eggs,/ over queasy,” an “ashtray full of butts/ & maybes,” “she played/ soft to get,” and “case clothed” (all right, I admit a fondness for “older ladies …thought his shinola// didn’t stink”), you’re punch drunk and ready to cry “Uncle!” You might forgive such punishing punning, such quarrelsome quibbles, as merely high spirits, but the poet’s archness falls prey to far too much blowsy sentiment (genre is doing a lot more for Young than Young is doing for genre): a can “whose jagged lid// opens your hand/ as if charity,” “smelling of catharsis/ & cheap ennui.” Bullets are made of lead, and so is the repartee. Black Maria is set in the Thirties or early Forties (there are references to a Tommy gun and a decoder ring, one that might come in handy for deciphering the poet’s system of capitalization), but somehow the modern age of the bikini (a word first recorded in 1947), the Saturday night special (1968), and paparazzi (1981) keeps sidling in. Then there are the wobbly writing, the misdemeanors of spelling and grammar, the dog’s dinner of punctuation, the dialect that often goes on the lam. As the story inches forward, repeating some scenes as if we hadn’t gotten the idea, the whodunit becomes the who gives a damn? After some 200 pages, though we’re no closer to knowing these characters (or having any idea what’s going on by way of plot), there’s a passage of science fiction that seems to have fallen out of another novel on the paperback rack. Young has tried so hard to make this a tour de force, he’s forgotten, not just the ontology that makes film noir so haunting, but the suspense that makes it entertaining. There seems no world beneath the nattering surface of his language, which lacks the philosophy of form on which genre depends. This giddy be-bop poet hasn’t yet found the right back alley for his gifts.
Ted Kooser is a prairie sentimentalist who writes poems in an American vernacular so corn-fed you could raise hogs on it. Kooser never met a word he didn’t like, unless it was a long one, or one derived from Latin, or Greek, or French—in the new poems of Delights & Shadows, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize,as well as the older ones in Flying at Night, he stands for a foursquare, hidebound American provincialism that, by gum, has every right to write poems and, by golly, means to write them,too. His poems tend to be short, dying for air, afraid to do more than tell you what happened on the porch, or right out the window, or maybe, just once, down the block. William Carlos Williams may be responsible for the strain of American individualism that, in our poetry, took the multitudes of Walt Whitman and squeezed them into a shoe box (think of the mop-haired words Whitman loved, not just foreign but American, too). It seems odd that poets should be drawn to plain-talking yokelism in a country clapped together out of immigrant ways and migrant tongues, but it doesn’t take long for a country to establish its own traditions and begin to hate everybody else’s. In Williams, and Creeley, and Kooser, you see the wish to make poetry out of the American language, meaning any word that can be spoken down at the corner grocery without making the clerk furrow his brow (when Kooser gets stuck for an adjective, he slaps in“old” and keeps on going, so after a while he’s got old men, old ladies, old dogs, old moles, old coats, old stoves, old snow, old thunder, old No Hunting signs, and much else). It doesn’t matter that the grocery is now a Starbucks and the clerk is called a barista. Kooser wants a poetry anyone can read without shame and understand without labor, because he thinks poetry has too long been in the hands of poets who “go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging.” This would come as a surprise to Shakespeare and Milton, Pope and Browning, and other poets who thought poetry was for those who loved it enough to spend time educating themselves—indeed, who felt that learning to read poems was itself an education. (Folks like Kooser want to render Shakespeare or the Bible in kitchen-sink English, without a difficulty or a discouragement in sight.) The current poet laureate, like many of his countrymen, doesn’t like anything that seems tough going. (It’s fortunate he isn’t in charge of teaching music, which has all those pesky notes.) Kooser prefers a poem whose meaning can be plucked from a dry streambed like a nugget of gold.
A Glimpse of the Eternal
a sparrow lighted
on a pine bow
my bedroom window
and a puff
of yellow pollen
It’s not much of a fight, and the monosyllables beat the disyllables hands down. There’s nothing awful about a poem that ends in mystic nothingness (at times you feel Kooser practices a kind of prairie zen), slathered with sentiment like corn on the cob with butter, but, to outdo it, the next poet off the farm will have to write in grunts. Maybe you’d like to get into this poetry racket yourself. Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual is full of down-home charm and genial misinformation (the poet laureate is folksy as an old rain barrel). He dispenses dollops of homespun wisdom to folks who want to write poems but have never had the gumption to try—they’ve been scared off by, of all people, poets themselves, who apparently spend most of their time advancing their careers and worrying about literary critics and making their poems so tangled up that, well, they’re just nonsense to an ordinary Joe: “most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat.” If Shakespeare knocked on his door for advice, Kooser would scratch his head and say, “Why, Bill, I guess these look like poems, but they’re way too much like walnuts for me.” Whom among all the poets of the past was our poet laureate inspired by? Whom does he use as an example? Why, Walter de la Mare! For Kooser, poetry’s main selling point is that it doesn’t have any rules, because rules are apparently very bad things to have. He doesn’t much like rhyme and meter (he doesn’t like the word “prosody,” either, because it “sounds so stuffy”). Still, I’m always eager to learn how to write poems, so I opened the Poetry Home Repair Manual at random and got some important advice: “Say a poet writes, ‘She had eyes like a chicken.’ Presto! A chicken pops into your mind.” And, presto, a chicken did pop into my mind! Why, it was simple as that! But things soon got a bit more complicated, and I began to wonder if this metaphor and simile business wasn’t harder than it was cracked up to be. A couple of paragraphs later, the poet complained, “You know what I’m talking about. We’ve already got a lot of chickens and a couple of washing machines on the table.” And, presto, there were a lot of chickens and a couple of washing machines on the table, clucking and sloshing away, so I turned to another page.There I found Kooser—I imagined him whittling away at a stick all the while—comparing the words of a poem to a bunch of ham cubes on a styrofoam tray, covered in shrink-wrap. And, presto!… The odd thing is, on rare occasions Kooser writes as if he knows more about poems than he lets on. A widow speaks:
How his feet stunk in the bed sheets!
I could have told him to wash,
but I wanted to hold that stink against him.
The day he dropped dead in the field,
I was watching.
I was hanging up sheets in the yard,
and I finished.
Though the poem is unambitious in the virtuous, Calvinist way Kooser admires, there’s a darkness here that Frost would have recognized. The prairies were once so lonesome and dreary and treeless that men called them the Great American Desert. A hundred and fifty years later, they’re growing lonesome once more, and the unspoken subject of Kooser’s poetry is the gradual depopulation of the Great Plains. There has always been emptiness and madness in those small towns (Kooser was a life insurance executive—the one thing such an executive knows about is death), and also the silent desperation that leads to Kooser’s whimsies about, say, mice abandoning a newly ploughed field, dragging tiny carts and carrying miniature lanterns. It’s a pity that these strange, unsettling poems were all written more than twenty years ago. There are a couple of haunting narrative poems in his new volume (Kooser’s real gift may be for narrative), but everything else is straight as a rail fence and just as wooden, too. Before he let plain speech become its own tyranny, before he started worrying about “poetry cops” intent on enforcing the “rules,” he showed signs of becoming a poet who knew something about cruelty and had a retrospective melancholy eye. Then he decided he’d be better off chawing plug tobacco and selling straw hats to tourists.
In the past, I have written with such pleasure on Richard Wilbur’s elegant and well-mannered verse that perhaps I may be forgiven for not cracking a full bottle of champagne across the bow of his latest Collected Poems. (Wilbur’s poetry was also discussed by Daniel Mark Epstein in “The metaphysics of Wilbur,” The New Criterion, April 2005.) Wilbur has added a dozen new poems, as well as the contents of Mayflies (2000), to the New and Collected Poems of eighteen years ago (he has also provided, like sweepings, a few show lyrics and his verse for children). About the best that can be said of the new poems is that they are reminiscent of Wilbur’s late style and impressive poems for any octogenarian to write. Here are houses seen at night in Key West:
Yet each façade is raked by the strange glare
Of halogen, in which fantastic day
Veranda, turret, balustraded stair
Glow like the settings of some noble play… .
A dog-tired watchman in that mirador
Waits for the flare that tells of Troy’s defeat,
And other lofty ghosts are heard, before
You turn into a narrow, darker street.
There, where no glow or glare outshines the sky,
The pitch-black houses loom on either hand
Like hulks adrift in fog, as you go by.
It comes to mind that they are built on sand,
And that there may be drama here as well,
Where so much murk looks up at star on star:
Though, to be sure, you cannot always tell
Whether those lights are high or merely far.
This is the sort of thing Wilbur does well on a good day, and on a bad one does so half-heartedly it calls the whole enterprise into question. The quiet intelligence of these lines—the calm unfolding of their perception—looks so easy anyone should be able to do it; and almost no one can. I love the reference to the watch fires that begin Agamemnon, love those houses drifting along in the fog like mysterious ships, love the reminder that the houses are built on sand; but the end, however quietly it invokes Frost’s “Desert Places,” seems muddled and listless. It’s curious that John Ashbery, who is only a few years younger, still seems our contemporary, while Wilbur sounds like an old fussbudget sorry he threw out his last pair of spats. A year ago American poetry, very briefly, had two centenarians, Richard Eberhart and Carl Rakosi. Rakosi has since died, but this year we will add another, Stanley Kunitz. As far as I know, no country has ever been able to boast of so many centenarians among its poets; and I suspect we will see many more (I’m not sure whether this trend is scary or not—what Keats was able to accomplish in four or five years is quite beyond what most poets can do in eighty). I trust that Richard Wilbur will be writing poems for a long while to come, and that some will be better than the new poems here. His Collected Poems, which includes poems so ornate Fabergé would have wept, deserves to be on the bookshelf of any serious reader.
William Logan’s book of poetry, The Whispering Gallery, will be publishedthis fall by Penguin.
- Where Shall I Wander, by John Ashbery; Ecco,81 pages, $22.95.Go back to the text.
- Elegy on Toy Piano, by Dean Young; University of Pittsburgh Press, 93 pages, $12.95 (paper).Go back to the text.
- Overlord, by Jorie Graham; Ecco, 95 pages, $22.95.Go back to the text.
- Black Maria, by Kevin Young; Alfred A. Knopf, 244 pages, $24.95.Go back to the text.
- Delights & Shadows, by Ted Kooser; Copper Canyon Press, 92 pages, $15 (paper).Flying at Night: Poems 1965–1985, by Ted Kooser; University of Pittsburgh Press, 142 pages, $14.95 (paper).Go back to the text.
- The Poetry Home Repair Manual, by Ted Kooser; University of Nebraska Press, 163 pages, $19.95.Go back to the text.
- Collected Poems, 1943–2004, by Richard Wilbur; Harcourt, 585 pages, $35.Go back to the text.